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tychoish/rhizome/ What We Learn from Wikileaks

What We Learn from Wikileaks

tycho garen
8 February 2011

Wikileaks, and the drama that has surrounded it for the past few months, brings forth images of the Internet as a very lawless and juvenile place, exactly the kind of thing that the cyberpunks of the 1980s were predicting. This isn't always far from the truth, but the story of spies and international espionage, and digital attacks and counter attacks may distract us from thinking about other issues. Obviously Wikileaks causes us think about censorship, but issue of publishing, journalism, audience and community participation, transparency, and globalism in the digital context are also at play. Lets take the highlights:

Censorship

In the print world, I tend to think of post-facto censorship is incredibly difficult. Once print copies of something exist they're there and it's hard to get every copy and you can't get people to "unread" what they've already seen. In the digital world, it's really difficult to get content taken down, and once there are copies in people's hands, the cost of making additional copies is low enough that censorship stops working. Right?

I suppose the appearance of multiple mirrors and copies of Wikileaks post-takedown proves this, but it also proves that there are aspects of the world wide web that are not decentralized and it's possible to pull a domain and site off the Internet at a single point. That's a very scary proposition. While information survives, I think many people thought that "you couldn't effectively censor the Internet," and Wikileaks says "yes you can, and here's how." (cite)

In response I think people have started to think about the shape and structure of the network itself. The Internet is designed to be resilient to this kind of thing, and this is a very startling example that it's not.

Publishing, Journalism and Wikis

I suppose the thing that I get most offended by "Wikileaks" for is the appropriation of the term "Wiki," because in the current (or last) form, Wikileaks wasn't a wiki. Content was not edited or supervised by a community, the Wiki process didn't allow the site to provide consumers with a more diverse set of opinions, it didn't increase transparency. In this respect, Wikileaks mostly resembles a traditional "old media," publication.

Once wikileaks stops being this radical new journalistic departure, and this community-driven site, what remains may be pretty difficult to reconcile. Is it useful for journalists to publish raw source material without analysis? What audience and purpose does that serve? The censorship of Wikileaks is problematic and requires some reflection, but there are problems with wikileaks itself that also require some serious thinking.

And just because it's a sore point, particularly since Wikileaks is/was a traditional publication and is not a platform for independent speech, we have to think about this as "freedom of the press" issue rather than a "freedom of speech" issue.

Community Involvement

The involvement of a community in Wikileaks, is over-shadowed by the groundswell of "community" activity by Anonymous and other groups. Look to Gabriella Coleman (twitter) for more thorough analysis. I don't have any answers or conclusions but: the role and effectiveness of (distributed) denial of service attacks in this instance is really quite important.

Usually DoSes are quick, messy and easily dealt with affairs: DoS someone, get noticed, target and attacking addresses get taken off the air and people loose interest and things return to normal. This back and forth, seems a bit unique (but not unheard of) the fact that the 4chan/Anon gang picked Wikileaks jives with their ethos, but it is impressive that they were able to get organized to support Wikileaks. I find myself curious and more surprised that someone was able to, at least for a while, throw something in the neighborhood of 10 gigabits (an unverified number, that originates with Wikileaks itself, so potentially inflated) at the original Wikileaks site. That's huge, and I think largely unexplored.

Transparent Operations

In July, Quinn Norton wrote about transparency and wikileaks, basically, that exposing information doesn't solve the problem that governments don't operate in a transparent manner, and that access to documents and transparency are the result of a more open way of doing business/government. Particularly in light of this, the fact that wikileaks focuses on data dumps rather than more curated collections of information or actual analysis, is all the more problematic.

Similarly, "wiki" as practiced in the original model (as opposed to wikileaks,) is about editing and document creation in an open and transparent manner. Thus the issue with wikileaks is not that they have/had a professional staff, but that they didn't disclose their process.

Onward and Upward!